Many people say that time is the most important asset that we have in our lives. I will definitely agree with this, but I think there is something even deeper than time: attention.
Attention, and especially the possibility to direct our attention, is to me the most important strength that we have in our lives. It is fundamental, primary, crucial.
Two things are important: what we pay attention to and how much attention we pay.
These two things are like the building blocks of our lives.
In our modern times, because of the way that technology is affecting us, attention – our capacity to focus – is one of the things we are losing and instead, we areallowing ourselves to be distracted all the time and waste our precious time.
My heart is really set in spirituality, and no doubt that focus is one of the fundamental qualifications that any person will need in order to to realize the aim of spirituality.1
But even for a person that is not interested at all in spirituality, attention is still one of the main powers he/she needs to have; if we are interested in business, in a career, in sports, in relationships, in anything at all, attention is fundamental, and may even be the secret key that separates an activity well done from an activity mediocrely done.
Anywhere we see something well done, attention is there, the power of focus, the power to keep that attention in a chosen subject for a long (or at least sufficient) period of time.
We need to learn to pay attention to attention and develop the capacity to maintain it, to focus.
But it is not easy; attention is like a muscle that has to be developed.
There is nothing easier than lack of attention, than going from one thing to the next. That is why these new short videos in Instagram, TikTok and many other social media are so popular and ADDICTIVE (to me they are like a disease for teenagers – and many adults – of modern age). Because they mimic the already natural tendency of the brain to move continuously from one object to the next without gaining or deepening the information that it is getting.
Having information about something on the one side, and having true knowledge about that something, on the other, are as different as reading about the flavor of an orange and actually eating an orange.
We don’t need more information; almost any person in the modern world has more information in his/her brain than almost any person that lived on the planet 100 years ago.
We don’t need more information; what we need is to understand, to bring to life the information that we have, and that requires attention, focus, depth.
We don’t need to have so much information about so many things, but we need to have depth in a few things that truly interest us.
And depth requires attention.
To me, one of the most important yoga exercises we can practice is keeping our attention in one place, focusing our attention.
There is a very important practice in yoga called pranayama. It is often confused, especially in the Western world, with control of the breath. Pranayama consists of breathing exercises, but at its heart it is about the control of prana, the vital life energy that runs deep in our body and mind. Everything is prana; moving the hand is prana, talking is prana, writing is prana, thinking is prana, any activity, any movement at all requires prana. And because breath is so fundamental, when we control the breath, we control the prana. Breath is like a vehicle that carries the passenger, prana.
Holding attention is another way to control the prana. There is an old saying: ‘prana goes where attention goes.’
By controlling prana we control the deep impulses from body and mind, and by controlling attention we control prana.
I think for us, Westerners, it is very important to practice breathing exercises because we tend to breathe very poorly and shallowly. But to do pranayama, which is the practice of breathing exercises in order to control the prana, requires an enormous amount of time and the understanding of a very difficult and confusing technique. For us Westerners, a more handy access to the control of prana is practicing the control of attention.
By bringing the mind back, over and over, to this moment right now. See what is in front of your eyes, hear the sounds, engage the senses and make this moment, whatever this moment is, more alive, more rich, more colorful.
One way that is taught in modern self-help circles to control the attention is by doing things that interest us. And yes, no doubt that doing what we like will help in the control of attention.
But we should not be dependent on that.
Our life should not be about some particular moments in which we are doing what we like. Those are for sure very important and fundamental moments and we can appreciate and be deeply grateful for them, but we can and need to learn to see our life as this moment right now, whatever this moment is, whatever this moment happens to be.
But this moment right now, unless we are noticing, unless we are aware of it, feeling its presence, it will pass by like if it never existed.
We cannot hold time, but we can bring attention to this moment, and realize that this moment IS our life.
1. Throughout this note I am talking of what I often call mindfulness or presence with lower p.
There is also what I call Presence with a capital P, which is a technical term I use when I teach spirituality. Attention is a power that fluctuates, that can increase or decrease according to conditions. But if we trace attention to its origin (something I am not doing at all in this note), we find a ‘power’ that never fluctuates, that never moves or changes. In spirituality, one reason why attention is so important is because it is by holding attention, by focus, that one is able to realize more easily that unchanging, infinite ‘factor’.